“Elbows off the table!” “Don’t point!” “Cover your mouth when you yawn!” These, and countless more, exasperated orders of etiquette are drilled into us as soon as we’re able to comprehend language—if not yet the implications of our ‘impoliteness’—but have you ever wondered how such social graces came to be? And who decides what’s rude, and what’s cool, anyway?
Nowadays yawning is interpreted as a sign of boredom (and can look pretty gross), but no-one’s quite sure why we hid it historically, with theories ranging from preventing our souls from escaping our bodies to it being a symptom of the plague so something to be stifled. The origins of pointing being frowned upon is another that’s difficult to pinpoint (the irony!) as it’s ingrained in so many cultures around the world, but a common thread is that it was seen as a way of directing evil spirits at somebody.
‘Elbows off the table’ is easier to answer as it was born when space was at a premium on the feast-festooned tabletops of the aristocracy, and your elbows meant less room for your neighbours. Many more of our Western customs spawn from this era; the tail-end of the Middle Ages, and the rise of the Renaissance.
The Birth of Etiquette
‘Set the table’ was a direct instruction when dining tables comprised trestles upon which boards literally had to be set down in preparation for meals. A cloth would then be thrown over said boards which was used by diners to wipe their hands and mouths—knives were only really used for cutting and spearing meat and bread and it was usual for even lords and ladies to eat with their hands.
That’s not to say the Medieval folk were not without their manners. Though they did not dine on the same dishes, it was customary for the wealthy to break bread with their servants during the Middle Ages with the idea being that the nobility provided for their serfs in return for unbridled loyalty.
Other ‘polite’ customs were somewhat less refined by today’s standards. A 14th-century behavioural guide by Catalonian theologian Francesc Eiximenis advised the upper-classes that “if you have blown your nose, never clean your hands on the tablecloth” and when spitting, to “do it behind you, never on the table or anyone else”.
Such uncouthness appalled Catherine de Medici, niece of Pope Clement VII, who married future king of France, Henry II, in 1533. Catherine arrived in the French capital from Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and was said to be shocked by the “harsh and boorish” nature of Paris, according to MFK Fisher, in her tome The Art of Eating. Fisher goes so far as crediting Catherine with changing “the table manners of Europe”.
Most associate the Renaissance with cultural and creative revolution, but it was responsible for all manner of social advancements too, including etiquette. In his 1558 book about manners, Galateo, Italian poet Giovanni della Casa, advised against combing hair and washing hands in public, unless before a meal when “it should be done in full sight of others, even if you don’t need to wash them at all…” This was especially relevant as forks were not to be adopted for another century or so—and even then, only by the highest of society—and everyone shared bowls. The poet also warned against smelling someone else’s food or wine.
Dutch Renaissance theologian Erasmus also offered up useful etiquette advice, some of which has that has stood the test of time like not offering “someone what you have half eaten yourself” and, also, no double-dipping! And, as for farting? He advises to “withdraw, it should be done alone”, and if that’s not possible then “let out a cough to hide the sound”.
There’s even more to worry about in the modern world thanks to texting, emails, social media and driving, though often it’s still just a case of applying some old-school common-sense decency—remember, the Oxford English dictionary defines etiquette as “the customary code of polite behaviour in society”.
Debrett’s, the legendary British authority on all things well-mannered, says that etiquette should be about a consideration of others, and an awareness of the impact of your actions. They’ve even updated their 250-year-old rulebook to include advice on the likes of How to Avoid a Twitter Spat (“celebrate others’ successes with retweet or congratulatory comment”, “beware of irony”, “remember there’s no edit option…if in doubt, don’t tweet”) and The Etiquette of the of the Work Secret Santa (“a budget should be treated as an approximate rather than a maximum”, “make it personal”, “a team present-opening session is not the place to revive an in-joke”).
A lack of face to face interactions because of the digital age is leading to a rise in social anxiety. New York clinical psychologist Maria Shifrin, PhD, says she’s seeing a large rise in the condition in millennials and Gen X-ers who “don’t know how to comport themselves at work or social gatherings”.
“Even with children, like adults, their go-to now is a screen when they’re overwhelmed or anxious—and they don’t have to make eye contact with anyone,” Shifrin tells Country Living. She reveals that many of her patients in therapy have difficulty making eye contact, and go through the day consciously avoiding it, even though “they know it’s right and respectful”.
It’s vital we remember tone during digital conversation, jokes and sarcasm can easily be misinterpreted, especially if you don’t know the person you’re messaging very well, or they are significantly older. And always keep things professional in business.
Other things to remember about online correspondence concerning work is to change the subject line when the subject of conversation changes to avoid endless threads; always try to respond to emails within a day; and if you don’t receive a fast enough reply to a genuinely time-sensitive matter then pick up the phone. Avoid delivering bad news digitally unless absolutely necessary, and still make time for those calls and human interaction.
Overuse of exclamation marks and emojis are not business-like, and only hit ‘reply all’ if it’s vital everyone needs to see the information—few things are more irritating during a busy day than a stream of inbox or mobile phone notifications with messages you don’t need to be a part of. An email chain that has run its course can be ended with a polite “thank you” or “my pleasure”.
Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, says that regardless whether or not they’re professional or personal messages always make an impression so should always be spell-checked and be properly punctuated; an “email is just an extension of yourself”.
Not Not What To Do
When in Rome
Tipping in many Asian countries is considered an insult to those who have served you. (I once had a server chase me out of restaurant in Beijing to return their tip.)
Giving a thumbs-up in some Middle Eastern, African and South American countries is the equivalent of flipping the bird.
In some parts of Europe and Latin America, the ‘okay’ hand sign means a***hole.
Gifts should not be opened in front of the gift-giver in many southern and eastern Asian nations.
Refusing food in many a Middle Eastern nation is seen as a slight against those offering it.
Finishing a meal in countries including the Philippines and Russia may be interpreted as a sign your host did not provide enough food.
In Buddhist countries, the top of the head is considered sacred, so no patting of heads or ruffling of cute kids’ hair. Or those of adults.
Always place chopsticks flat or resting against the side of a bowl in countries including Japan and China. Sticking them into food so they protrude vertically is traditionally done for offerings for the dead.